a fairer house than prose
...for occupation, this
The spreading round my narrow hands
to gather paradise.
A colleague and I recently discussed international society and the commonalities shared by diplomats, scholars, researchers, and others who have reached a certain level of attainment and ease in the world. We wondered if they might relate to each other with more ease than they relate to people from their place of origin. We wondered if it might extend beyond the newspapers, novels and shared society, stretching to their sense of possibility.
It's a wonderful thing to dwell in possibility, to feel the clear blue expanse, to spread one's hands without fear. Such people are able to exercise agency within this wide-open world. Their reputation, knowledge, social skills, and tactical acuity complement an aura of confidence whose mere presence itself unlocks many doors.
Education, society, and the funds to maneuver bring a kind of pleasant comfort to one's days. One is able to read, discuss, and eat without worry, to breathe deeply and enjoy each moment of life's precious cordial. It's a wonderful thing to wake up in the morning, to exercise for health and recreation, to stop at Starbucks to redeem a gift card for a relaxing morning with a novel, to saunter over to a sociable afternoon meeting, and to know that this is my work. To call the Wordsworth society dinner one of Cambridge's rare consolations is to participate in a pleasant, knowing imprecision; if the satisfactions of my academic course are the low points of my current lifestyle, I can have no true dissatisfactions.
Such must have been the life for the retinue of the generous king Belshazzar. Having inherited a vast Middle-Eastern kingdom of great learning, administrative efficiency, and lavish provender, he decided to reward his nobles and celebrate his situation with a grand party. Special table service was used: rare and beautiful goblets and massive laveoirs overflowed with wine and other delicacies. The conversation must have been exquisite.
I can imagine the subdued enthusiasm as brilliant scholars, young suitors, and elegant ladies tossed and caught witty conversation, now circling, now sweeping through the gliding weaves of color and excitement. The older set probably sat and watched the youths' activity in satisfaction and fond memory.
But this evening would not be all blue skies and bon-bons.
Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his color changed, and his lords were perplexed.
The story, found in the ancient book of Daniel and other sources, describes the effective collapse of one of the world's great empires -- in a single day. When Daniel is summoned to speak with Belshazzar near the very end, he tells of the king's father Nebuchadnezzar, and how this previous king had come to grips with the fragile reality of privilege and the need for wise use of power. The next king was no stranger to wisdom; his terms of conquest are considered the very first charter of human rights.
The Jewish book of Amos also contains a warning for those who enjoy great privilege:
As a Christian, I see all life as an expression of the power and blessing of God: sunrise, breath, conversation, an embrace, a smile, a brisk challenge, a sorrow, a warm tea, and an evening's rest. Life in a supernatural world elicits wonder, awe, and fear. Neither confidence nor possibility are based merely on individuals in society, their environments, and their histories, but on an unseen power. In many Greek tragedies, people are consistent and the gods capricious [or at least inaccessible, which amounts to similar confusion]. Awareness of vast power without a knowledge of its aims would indeed be terrifying. And yet the element of fear is not absent from an understanding of the Christian God of love and constancy. Even the great are loved for their rarity, for the fragility of their passing light. A name which endures is precious because its owner cannot.
I have been trying to learn what it means to be humble, to be aware of my limitations and to show my constant need for Christ while still carrying out the excellence and faithfulness which His grace enables and demands, while still living a disciplined, professional life which achieves success, on which others can rely, which fails neither my associates nor my Divine Lord. Especially at Cambridge, my fellow students need to see the value of brokenness, for that is our natural state. And yet the power of Christ is his ability to mend, his ability to uncover and heal wounds which we might never notice, to grant us an integrity which we never thought possible, to lead us to satisfactions which we cannot fully imagine.
I could desire this for marketing purposes, but that would be hypocrisy. I desire it for myself, lest I like Belshazzar drink the wine of false celebrations on a day of downfall, lest the coffers of my life are opened to find me wanting.
So I pray for wisdom, but even more, for action, for a vision of the celestial, for discipline and for love.
I sit exams in less than a month. My current task is clear: to prepare so well that I am able to keep one eye on the needs of others and put a hand to their growth and good success.